As flames leap in the background, a volunteer from the Syrian White Helmets holds aloft a bag of diapers. “From the UN”, he says. The blurry video shows the aftermath of the deadliest attack on aid workers yet in Syria. At least 20 people died while carrying aid in rural Aleppo, with both the corpses of Syrian Arab Red Crescent workers and the detritus of the humanitarian cargo burned or ruined.
With hopes for an end to the war dashed time and again, much hope has been pinned on these UN-led aid “inter-agency” convoys into mostly besieged and hard-to-reach areas, and the recent attack has brought them into further focus.
But are these convoys – carefully choreographed, breathlessly reported, and sometimes lifesaving – the best way to bring aid to a desperate population? Are they becoming more risky? Are they an overhyped symptom of a politicised aid system that has failed the people of Syria?
Or perhaps all of the above?
It’s time to ask some hard questions about how assistance is being delivered in Syria, and if it’s really helping that much at all.
In the beginning
Emergency aid largely consists of goods; goods travel on trucks; and truckers tend to move in convoy. That’s how it’s done.
But at the outset of the war in 2011, when all but the most astute observers predicted Bashar al-Assad would fall quickly, in the vein of a Muammar Gaddafi or a Hosni Mubarak, UN-led aid in Syria was focused on Iraqi and Palestinian refugees and there was nary an interagency convoy in sight. Some individual wings of the UN, namely the World Food Programme, did their own food deliveries.
The International Committee of the Red Cross began to expand operations, and the UN sometimes gave the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) goods to deliver.
In the spring of 2012, as the number of displaced and needy rose (people had started taking shelter in Damascus public gardens), the UN put together its first multi-agency convoy in an effort to increase efficiency and bring help to new parts of the country.
A former UN official, then based in Damascus and instrumental in these first efforts, told IRIN that even though these were only four or five-truck convoys, just carrying hygiene materials, they were still a pain to get off the ground.
Even in these early days, “the whole thing was very bureaucratic,” the official said.
“In the beginning, they [the al-Assad regime] didn’t want international staff going. Then they eventually agreed. It was a bit of a nightmare, and a lot of wasted time, but eventually we did it.”
Despite the wrangling required, the UN official said these convoys were useful in terms of building trust between the SARC (seen by many, but not this particular official, as leaning towards the regime) and the UN.
It showed the UN was “not just expecting the national organisations (like SARC) to go and put themselves on the front lines”, the official said, adding that international UN staff joined the convoys in part because it was believed they could serve as protection for the Syrian staff.
“At the time, I didn't think these convoys would be deliberately targeted,” the official added.
An expanding (and overhyped?) operation
Times have changed. The latest public update from OCHA, the UN’s aid coordination body, reports 115 inter-agency convoys to besieged or hard-to-reach areas this year, including 32 led by UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees.
These high-profile convoys are typically a few dozen trucks each. They carry mixed cargo, including food, household goods, hygiene and sanitary supplies from agencies like WFP and UNICEF. However, medicines and surgical supplies are frequently banned or removed by Syrian officials.
They’re almost always followed by press releases and a flurry of tweets, but despite their prominence and publicity it turns out UN-led inter-agency convoys, emblazoned with logos and accompanied by staff and 4x4s, are the exception in the overall Syria aid response, not the rule.
WFP reports that 3,000 truckloads a month (or an average of 100 per day) are on the move as part of their operation to supply food to four million people across the country.
Mercy Corps, likely the biggest supplier of cross-border relief from Turkey, reports that their monthly deliveries reach more than 600,000 people, which would amount to hundreds more per month in addition to WFP. Add the plethora of other aid groups and operations by ICRC and SARC separate from the UN, and the numbers rise even more.
At an absolute minimum, IRIN estimates that 35,000 truckloads of relief aid have been delivered around Syria in 2016. Continuing this back-of-the-envelope calculation, inter-agency convoys into besieged and hard-to-reach areas, at an average of 30 trucks each, represent less than 10 percent of total aid shipped, possibly much less.
As one senior UN official familiar with the Syria operation put it: "UN aid convoys have been diminished to symbolic (as opposed to meaningful and sufficient) means of supporting those in need, especially in besieged areas."
A tool of the political process?
It’s not just that the convoys are not enough.
Accusations that the UN is overly influenced by the al-Assad government have plagued the aid operation since its early days. But there’s more to the story.
These days, the humanitarian task force negotiating convoy movements sits in Geneva, tied in with the International Syria Support Group.
Aid is meant to be neutral, impartial, and independent – three of the four guiding humanitarian principles. Convoys that are only allowed in during negotiated ceasefires, or are linked to “evacuations” (such as Daraya), would struggle to approach these ideals. On 29 September, UN aid chief Stephen O’Brien told the UN Security Council, for example, that “tit-for-tat”, synchronised deliveries to Madaya and three other towns involved in two pairs of choreographed sieges were “unconscionable”.
"Feeding humanitarian blood, sweat and tears into the political machine"
A second former UN official in Damascus told IRIN that placing the humanitarian task force in Geneva, as a subsidiary body of a political forum, “makes it very clear it’s a fallacy to ever think independence, neutrality and the other [humanitarian] principles are there”.
And an analyst well placed to comment on Syria believes that operations like the ill-fated Aleppo convoy are “feeding humanitarian blood, sweat and tears into the political machine.” And that blood is almost always Syrian.
The analyst argued that cross-line convoys and airdrops are being used a substitute for political progress. At the end of the day, the high-profile convoys are a “tiny drop in the ocean”, and have been “deliberately imbued with fake legitimacy” to compensate for a troubled aid operation and a lack of political or military resolve, the source added. "Everyone knows the [aid] system is deeply damaged", and the heavily publicised convoys represent a "pretense of accountability", to reassure donors that "we know where the aid's going”.
OCHA did not reply to IRIN’s requests for comment, nor did the ICRC, which also joins these convoys. In fact, no UN officials or heads of other major aid agencies agreed to speak to IRIN on the record.
But an April statement from major NGOs including Mercy Corps, Care International and many local Syrian organisations, expresses serious reservations about the politicisation of the convoys.
“To date, it is clear that the approval for UN cross-line convoys is thoroughly linked to political negotiations,” the statement reads. “We are concerned that convoy permission is being used as a means of enticing populations into entering or maintaining localised truce agreements, while simultaneously penalising those that will not.”
Even O’Brien seems to have admitted that convoys get the majority of the attention as part of a strategy to focus attention on unreachable areas, not because they’re doing the most good.
In his Security Council address, he said: “While it is true that the UN and its partners support millions of people with assistance each month through regular programming and cross-border activities, those who are in the most acute need are often those who cannot be reached through either modality. While we focus much of the attention on ensuring humanitarian access via cross-line convoys, this is not to take away from other modalities which do most of the actual aid delivery, but to ensure attention is focused on the locations we cannot otherwise reach.”
You got a better idea?
The second former UN official argued that the UN simply lacks creativity.
“Convoys are not the answer to everything,” she argued. “So this is five years and all you put on the table is convoys. There is something wrong. Is it a lack of imagination?”
She suggested that the UN has failed to consider other options – why not consider more cash distributions (an aid delivery method that is gaining popularity) or directly funding local NGOs who can do the job quietly, she asked? How about paying for one or two trucks at a time that could get in under the radar?
“It’s about thinking of other strategies, and a lot of them frankly have to deal with finding ways to become very, very localised,” she says. “And not having teams based in Damascus sending the convoys.”
Airdrops are an oft-floated option, but they’re difficult and costly. One drop is 18.2 tonnes, roughly the same as a truckload of food, and cost as much as $250,000.
Other critics argue that the focus on convoys downplays the need for vital services like midwifery. The April NGO statement says “an over-emphasis on the convoys has detracted from other types of assistance that are needed just as urgently, including medical, health, water, sanitation, education, psychosocial support, and child protection services”.
Is something better than nothing at all?
It’s not that these publicity-laden convoys don’t have a role to play. They are intended to build confidence, show common purpose amongst UN agencies and the Red Cross movement, and call the bluff of slippery negotiators. Their very deliberate visibility is intended, in theory, as a form of insurance against attack and to discourage the conflict parties from reneging on agreements.
Ultimately, the analyst reckoned, “you’ve got to keep trying… some aid is better than none. That’s what it basically comes down to.”
As the current UN official put it: “convoys, no matter how seemingly meagre, are a glimmer of hope to those waiting for the aid. [But] when strikes on aid convoys occur, like those in Aleppo, it wipes out that hope along with any material assistance."
The problem is that painting the convoys with what the analyst called “a desperate gloss” may be distracting and preventing more inventive aid solutions.
It’s time to think outside the UN-branded box.
(TOP PHOTO: A convoy of vehicles delivering humanitarian supplies waits at the last checkpoint before Madaya. Omar/UNICEF)
Ben Parker was head of UN OCHA in Damascus in 2012-13